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Jack Sims is founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO), a non-profit that works for improving sanitation for people globally. In an interview, Sims talks about the issue of sanitation in India. He advocates using a combination of strategic philanthropy and market-based solutions to “make toilets as important as cell phones”.

Let’s talk about sanitation in the Indian context. Why is this something that should be of interest to Indian philanthropists?

In India, about 87% of all surface water is contaminated by faeces. And this is because people are so used to shitting next to the river, or the roadside, or dumping it into the river after they collect it. So when you do that, you don’t get clean drinking water or bath water.

And sometimes you do religious rites in the river, but you are actually doing it in a sewer. It transmits diseases, it kills the fish, it creates all kinds of problems, and if we don’t pay attention at all and we don’t talk about it because it’s so embarrassing, this can just go on.

So, if you like this country’s people to be healthy—because economic growth comes from healthy people—then you need to take care of hygiene and sanitation, because 50% of all the beds in hospitals in poor countries are usually occupied by people with water-borne diseases. Once you give them hygiene and sanitation, this sickness dramatically reduces.

What strategies have you found effective in tackling this issue?

The best solution is not to give someone a toilet but to sell him one at a very very cheap price. So we started this Sani Shop. Because when people get free toilets, the toilets become storerooms, the toilets become kitchens—they become something else. Or people don’t maintain it as if it’s a public toilet. Toilets require ownership. If there is no ownership, you cannot force them to want it.

I’ve seen a lot of World Bank programmes where the materials for toilets are delivered to a village and they are piled up. And they just stay there and no one is actually building a toilet, and you get these creepers growing all over and pretty soon you just don’t see them. And this could be counted as sanitation coverage back in the office. But no real coverage has happened on the ground. So you need to engage people to own the toilet.

How do you create ownership?

We teach the poor to become entrepreneurs. For $1,000 (around Rs.50,900 today), they start a whole factory. The factory has the equipment, it casts cement products and then they sell it. We just started three months ago, we now have 9,000 toilets ordered and it’s growing. So it’s a very profitable business for the entrepreneurs. So we do not give them money for the investment, but we train them for free—we teach them how to fish. And the manufacturer will employ his family—probably three jobs of production. And we train another three sales ladies in the village—these could be housewives working part time. And they get $2 commission from the manufacturer every time they sell a toilet.

So $1,000 investment by themselves, free training, creates six jobs and delivers sanitation sustainable by themselves because there’s a business model.

I think charity can be better channeled to capacity building than giving away toilets for free.

In your speech at the Indian Philanthropy Forum, you spoke about the importance of making toilets aspirational. Can you elaborate?

Unless you make a toilet as important as a cell phone, something they aspire to have, something that is clean, beautiful, necessary, a status symbol, an object of desire and something they understand that is really good for them—not just rationally but emotionally—only then will it work. If you just go rationally, it might not work.

Because why does a person buy a cell phone? He buys it because he wants to communicate, but more than that, if he doesn’t have a cell phone, it looks bad. It looks like “oh you don’t have a cell phone”. If we were to take that same psychology into toilets and sanitation, it can happen—but it must be affordable—may be even the same price as a cell phone, $30 or $40. And once you’re able to position that, then a lot of marketing is needed. I think the way going forward is to make it an object that people will be jealous of. That sort of marketing is very useful. Are you letting your grandparents go out in the rain at night in the bush, risking to be bitten by a snake? Are you this kind of person? This kind of emotional marketing is very critical.

What role can philanthropy play in this space?

I’d like philanthropists to focus on building the capacity of people to help themselves. You see charity can sometimes be destructive. When you give somebody something, you create dependency. If you train somebody to help themselves it’s so much better. Charity sometimes works like that: Prove to me that you’re useless, helpless, hopeless, and I the generous will come down to your level and give you something. You incentivize the person to behave in a way that he’s helpless. Incentivizing helplessness is a very bad thing to do. You have to incentivize the person to help himself. So capacity building and economic employment models are more important. And then you can ask the person a different question: Prove to me that you are willing to learn to help yourself, and I’ll teach you. But I won’t give you anything—I’ll just give you knowledge, and whatever you need to facilitate, you can always borrow from microfinance or relatives.

You have to invest, you have to take risks, you have to work, you have to learn—and if you are willing to do that, I’m here for you. So, I think that philanthropy can empower people by paying for the trainers, by building the market infrastructure, by transforming the base of pyramid of four billion poor people to a vibrant marketplace; and once people are able to run their own business, the base of the pyramid can become a fantastic place also for the rest of the people to trade with them, and that’s how people can get out of poverty.

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